I just went to see this wonderful film with mia madre. I got introduced to Serge Gainsbourg’s music when I lived in France and Brussels (along with Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel) but apart from his smoking and drinking, his love affair with Jane Birkin, and the infamous Whitney Houston gaffe, I didn’t know much about him.
The film concentrates on the fact that, like many talented and brilliant artists, Gainsbourg was tortured from a difficult childhood – escaping Nazi-occupied Paris as a hidden Jew and afflicted by what he saw as his ugly “mug”. He begun as an artist and then devloped into a talented musician – taught piano by his Russian father. From a young age he was chain-smoking and living partly in an escapist fantasy world with a rebellious streak and an eye for the ladies. This would mean he bedded some of the world’s most beautiful women but also found it hard to be faithful – you see how much love he gave and how much pain he caused the women in his life. And it shows how shameless he was – shameless! – obsessed with sex from a young age and hitting on young girls even when he was old and grey.
But you forgive him because of his passion and his heart and his talent – and I’d forgotten how brilliant his music is. This was a great music film (like The Last Waltz, Walk The Line or La Vie En Rose) and it reminded me to get his albums out again, and listen to Bonnie and Clyde, La Javannaise, Elaneudanla Teïteïa and Aux Armes Etc. He has always been a rebel and a romantic and this certainly comes through in his music – fantastic lyricist too.
In this film, his “tortured soul” is tangible – the voices in his head in human form. Who knows why so many great artists, writers and musicians were alcoholics and drug addicts (Hemingway, Edith Piaf, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jim Morrisson, Janis Joplin, the list is ridiculously long…) and most of the time the addiction killed the talent or at least the talent was able to come through in spite of the addiction rather than because of it. It seems strange that so many great artists have this affliction (read The Thirsty Muse for more on this) but it also lends them more of an air of mystery and complexity too. Perhaps we glamorise it, but it seems we don’t want our artists straight-laced, simple or uncomplicated.
The actor who plays Gainsbourg, Eric Elmosnino, is so physically alike it’s quite uncanny and is somehow both ugly and beautiful and incredibly sexy (in fact the whole film is a very sexy film). Laetitia Casta is brilliant as a gob-smacking Brigitte Bardot and the scene where she dances round the piano singing Comic Strip is a fantastic scene – it’s funny and sexy and liberated and so brilliantly French. I will say it again – Gainsbourg was just bloody sexy – the way he saw the beauty in women, encouraged them to show their vulnerability and creativity and sing his songs with him, even if they didn’t have the best voice (Bardot and, lets face it, Birkin). I mean, isn’t there a part of every woman that wants to be naked in a bedsheet lying on a piano singing with abandon about “ses reins” while the sweet smell of gitanes washes over her?
Gainsbourg didn’t do anything by halves. He was devoted to his music and loved very hard (you would not have so much sympathy for a man who couldn”t keep le pipe in his trousers if it weren’t for his adoration for his parents and the women in his life). After having his heart broken by Bardot, he met his match in the feisty and beautiful English girl Jane Birkin (played with brilliant fun and fabulous legs by Lucy Gordon). It was she who for the first time allowed him to rid himself of his demons and it was on her that he bestowed his only love song – Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (for any child of the seventies like myself, you probably found this lurking guiltily at the bottom of your parents’ vinyl collection, dirty tykes). And yet even she couldn’t stop him drinking or smoking and he soon reverted to his bad old ways – having moments of great happiness and love but always haunted by his addictions and his demons.
I love French films anyway as they’re so romantic and emotive and ballsy but this is especially good because of the acting and the fact that Gainsbourg was such an unapologetic character. But more than that its all about the music. If you want a break from the 80s revival films of the summer then I’d definitely recommend you go see it.